public safety


Calling 911 From Your Cellphone? Don’t Assume They’ll Know Exactly Where You Are

Trainer Kevin Lewis (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Training specialist Kevin Lewis of the Massachusetts 911 department at a call center training screen. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

One afternoon this fall, as Dr. Ian Sklaver was coaching his 13-year-old daughter’s soccer team, one of the players suddenly collapsed and stopped breathing. Her skin took on a blue pallor, and her pulse was thready, barely there.

Sklaver, who practices at Garden City Pediatrics in Beverly, Massachusetts, immediately started CPR and called 911. We need an ambulance, he told the dispatcher urgently, giving the name of the school he was at and the street it was on.

The dispatcher asked him a question or two, he recalls, “and then asked me the bewildering question of ‘What town are you in?’ And I told them, and then they reconnected me to another person to re-tell the same story again — which seemed to be taking a lot of time away from doing CPR.”

Fortunately, the player was fine — but Sklaver was left mystified.

He has Google Maps, Find-My-iPhone and other free apps, he said, “that can find me to the exact street address. And I call 911, the most important call one could potentially make,” and he’s asked what town he’s in.

Our goal is to bring the 911 system into the 21st century.

– David Furth, FCC

So — if apps like Google Maps and Uber seem to know just where your phone is, why doesn’t the 911 system?

The answer is sadly simple. The 911 system “is based on technology that was developed almost 40 years ago,” said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit that focuses on 911 issues.

“And it was designed for a wired-only world where you have your wired phone tethered to a fixed address,” he explained. “Much has changed, obviously, over the years, and today roughly 75 or 80 percent of 911 calls come in from wireless devices.”

Back when cellphones were new, the 911 system could only map which tower had relayed a given call. In recent years, with GPS, the system has gotten much better at locating cellphone calls. But it is still behind commercial apps. Continue reading